New Faculty: Hussain Studies Cancer Origins

Shehnaz K. Hussain, PhD, appreciates Cedars-Sinai's dual missions of academic excellence and quality patient care. "You're face to face with your clinical colleagues," she says.

Shehnaz K. Hussain, PhD, traverses the busy intersection of genetics, infections and the environment in her quest to learn how cancer happens. As a new research scientist and associate professor in the Cedars-Sinai Department of Medicine and the Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute, she brings a diverse background in molecular epidemiology and infectious diseases.

"Infections, immunity and cancer have been underlying themes in all my research," said Hussain, who joined Cedars-Sinai earlier this year after seven years at the University of California, Los Angeles, where she rose to associate professor adjunct in the Department of Epidemiology at the School of Public Health.

At UCLA, she focused on cancer in highly susceptible populations infected with the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV. "Studying the molecular epidemiology of cancer in HIV-infected populations provides a unique opportunity to understand the biology of cancer because it is happening at an accelerated rate in them," she said.

Hussain was the first author of a February 2013 study, published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention, that identified biomarkers related to immune activation in HIV-infected patients that were strongly associated with subsequent development of non-Hodgkin B cell lymphoma, a malignant tumor of lymphoid tissues.

Other researchers, working with large national cohorts of HIV-uninfected people, have since found that these biomarker associations hold in more generalized study populations, she said, indicating the potential for wider application of her findings.

While studying HIV-infected populations, Hussain said, she became interested in the elevated cancer risk found among solid organ-transplant recipients. Like HIV-infected patients, these individuals have dysfunctional immunity — in their case, resulting primarily from administration of drugs to keep their bodies from rejecting the transplanted organ.

In pursuing this new line of research, Hussain said, she was attracted to Cedars-Sinai's extensive and comprehensive transplant program, which performs more adult heart transplants than any other medical center in the nation. She said she also appreciated the institution's dual missions of academic excellence and quality patient care. "At Cedars-Sinai, you're face to face with your clinical colleagues," she explained. "It’s very different from a school of public health."

Hussain said she is working with her new Cedars-Sinai colleagues to develop a cohort study of organ-transplant recipients, along with a system for collecting tissue and blood samples from these patients before, during and after their transplants. By tracking these individuals over time, Hussain said she hopes to identify molecular features of their microbiome and immune response that may help explain why and how so many transplant patients develop malignancies. More broadly, she hopes this research will shed light on pathways implicated in carcinogenesis.

Hussain received her PhD in 2006 from the Department of Epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine in Seattle. From 2006 to 2008, she was a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Family and Community Medicine at Sweden's Karolinska Institute in Stockholm and at the UCLA School of Public Health and Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center.